A Letter To My Chinese Family About Black Lives Matter
By Zoe Yang
I have been inspired by something that happened online recently. A young Asian-American woman my age asked strangers to help her write a letter explaining the Black Lives Matter movement to her Asian parents. The letter has gained a lot of support, been translated into dozens of languages, and been published on several media platforms.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to add my own voice to this letter before sharing it with you and Mom. Though the letter is a wonderful start, it is limited — it can’t possibly speak for an entire race and cover the nuances of all our histories. And yet, I also know that so many Asian immigrants and refugees have lived through violence and oppression that viscerally, you already understand what I’m about to say.
In this letter, I want to call not on your sympathy, but on your empathy; I want you to look past racial differences and see how much we all have in common.
Baba, did you know that my first exposure to the concept of death was when I asked you — I was maybe three or four — why I didn’t have two grandfathers? You explained that your father, my YeYe, had died before I was born.
“Why?” I’d asked.
“He was killed.”
You gave me more details as I got older. I learned that YeYe committed suicide when you were 16, during China’s Cultural Revolution. I learned that our family had the wrong kind of background because YeYe had fought in the Kuomintang Army. He was hauled in for regular beatings, shamings, and “self-criticisms” until he finally gave up. You and GuGu were chased out of school. I didn’t understand the politics at that age, but I understood that I loved life a lot, so whatever drove YeYe — this man you tell me I’m so much like — to end his life must have been really, really bad. To me, this doesn’t sound like suicide. You’re right; he was killed.
You’re always reticent about talking about this, so I can’t imagine how you dealt with the aftermath of YeYe’s death, but I do have one clue about how it impacted you: When I asked you why we were moving to America, you said, “They value life there.” You didn’t cite the “economic opportunities” I later learned about in my college Asian American studies classes — you said “they value life.” That was in ’91, so Tiananmen Square must have been the last straw for you.
Did you know that our family history is what first inspired my interest in Chinese history? By now, I’ve heard hundreds of other stories like YeYe’s. I’ve heard stories of overt murder, like that of Bian Zhongyun, the vice principal beaten to death by her students in 1966, but I’ve heard many more stories of suicide and other “premature deaths.” Apparently, “premature death” is what happens when you cut off someone’s oxygen — their livelihood, their support networks, their access to public resources. I wonder why we don’t use this term when describing what’s been happening to Black people in America, on a good day, for pretty much forever.
Baba, you and I both know all of it was bullshit. The Cultural Revolution happened so Mao could purge his enemies. None of those ordinary citizens’ lives, including YeYe’s, mattered to anyone in a position of power.
Looking back now, I realize that those early stories from you were the seeds that grew into my value system. I am allergic to groupthink and ideology; I am passionate about justice and empathy. I like this part of myself, and hope you do, too. You’re still not much of a talker, but I have another clue. Unlike Mom and all your friends, you hate going back to China. I think you still sense that your life wouldn’t matter there.
You grew up during a time when violence was ubiquitous, perpetrators had absolute impunity, and justice was a pipe dream. You understand, more than I ever could, what it’s like for human life to be treated as a pawn, or worse, for it to be disregarded altogether. You understand what it’s like to be designated a second-class citizen based on something arbitrary and morally empty.
That is what many Black Americans experience today.
You got out by being exceptional as well as exceptionally lucky, but not everyone can count on escape. The America you know — the one that delivered on the Dream — is closed off to so many people. The America Black people know is like the China you know: a place ruled by the ever-present threat of brutal, state-sanctioned violence. That’s why I support Black Lives Matter. It doesn’t have much to do with me personally, but with the patterns of caste-based oppression that keep transpiring the world over.
I know, more than anything, you are afraid of being on the wrong side of the stick again. I know silence is your survival strategy, and I can’t argue that it’s not effective. If you’re able to identify with the cop in one of these stories, that is enabled by the way America treats you. But remember, Baba, you were also once the child in the backseat, witnessing the senseless death of a parent. Along with Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and all the others, I also mourn for you and YeYe. I can’t change what happened to their families or ours, but I can add my voice to the enduring struggle for justice.
With love and hope,